We buy “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments and bronze their first shoes. Many of us have our offsprings’ first baby teeth and locks from their first hair cuts in little plastic baggies in our sock drawers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. These are all important mile markers on the road of life, but what about the ‘lasts’? As a society, we don’t seem to pay much attention to them. Perhaps, it’s because we don’t recognize them as such until it’s too late.
For example, for those of us with potty-trained kids, do you remember the last time you had to put a diaper on your child? Would that mundane, often disgusting, experience have taken on a whole new meaning if we had only known we would never do it again? How about the last time you held their hand when they crossed a street? What about the last time you read them a book before going to sleep? We all can probably recall by heart the words to I’ll Love You Forever by Robert Munsch or the culinary habits of The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, but what was title of the last one you read together? We don’t have a ceremony for the reading of the final bedtime story. it just sorta happens. Except for me. I remember.
The book was called The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. My youngest son, Daniel, was a fourth-grader and unable to sleep one night due to an upset stomach. He had come into my room and stood by my side of the bed in that creepy way kids do until you realize someone is there. Upon hearing his tale of gastrointestinal woe, the first idea that came to my head was to read him a book. See, when you’re an English teacher, all problems are solved through literature.
I settled into a chair next to his bed and grabbed the aforementioned work off his desk where he had been reading it on his own. I opened it to the marked page and commenced. And just like that, something magical happened. I immediately felt an intense kinship with all of the dads of the world who had come before me. Fleeting images of every type of father, huddled over dog-eared texts, illuminated by candles or desk-lamps with brightly covered shades decorated with Snoopy characters, superimposed themselves one after another in my mind. Somehow, I just knew this was it. This would be the last time I would read my son a story like this. Even after he had closed his eyes and fell into the unmistakeable shallow breathing of sleep, I continued to read so as to relish each moment. I didn’t want it to ever end. I wanted to always be there for him, to guard him, to be his hero; the one who could solve any problem a fourth-grader might ever have. But, like all those dads in history before me, I knew that was not how it was meant to be.
Eventually, weariness overtook me; and I reluctantly replaced the novel, its bookmark repositioned, back onto his desk. I kissed his forehead; and as I silently retreated from his bedroom, I reflected upon how my world had just shifted. Soon, our relationship would be defined in terms of his life. I would be his father, instead of him being my son. My new role was to help him face his fears instead of protecting him from them. I turned off his light and went down the hall to my own bed, feeling a bit empty and a little lost. I stopped for a moment and realized that I had gained something from this ‘last’. I thought of my own dad and how he must have felt when this stage of life came upon him some decades ago, and now I understood.
For the first time.